Review: Speck Products SpeckTone Retro
Pros: A highly distinctive-looking throwback speaker system that emulates the look of a 1950’s radio, but with an iPod dock on top and two color-matched rubber cases (5G and nano) in the package. Available in three colors, each with a nicely illuminated front volume dial. Produces generally rich sound.
Cons: Left and right speakers were reversed in our review unit; by contrast with top similarly- (and lower-) priced units, bass from subwoofer sounded comparatively flat and thuddy on beats in our test songs, and system offered neither bass nor treble adjustment, as found in better competing options. Power switch on rear side and design of power cable are annoying. Feels exceedingly stripped down in features by comparison with most iPod speakers in this price range, especially lacking a remote control, which is now increasingly common at this price level.
iPod speaker manufacturers tend to agree that there is incredible demand for options in the $150 price range, and we’ve seen many new options over the course of the last several weeks. Today, we look briefly at three $150 speakers - Emerson’s iTone iE600BK Home Audio System (iLounge rating: C), mStation’s Orb 2.1 Stereo (iLounge rating: B), and Speck Products’ SpeckTone Retro, each a single-piece stereo designed solely to run off of wall power. Though each one includes an iPod dock and three speakers, they’re hardly equivalent to one another in any other way save price: they differ substantially in design, sound quality and other features. We’re giving them only short individual reviews because we weren’t impressed enough by any of them to call them standouts.
As the first speaker system released by Speck Products, a company known primarily for eye-catching and innovative iPod case designs, SpeckTone Retro has a lot to prove. Does it pack the sort of audio quality we’d expect from a $150 speaker system? What’s with the shell, which looks to be a throwback to a decade not widely admired for its timeless designs? And why - why? - doesn’t it come with a remote control, given that so many other $150 iPod speakers now include them?
To start with the obvious point, SpeckTone Retro is an iPod speaker people will buy if they’re attracted to its design theme, rather than its features or sound quality. The highlight of the package for some users will be the retro cabinet design, which is modeled off of 1950’s radios and possesses similarly bare controls. There are three positives to the cabinet: it’s made mostly from good-looking lacquered wood, features a nice illuminated green volume dial in front, and comes in three color combinations. Unfortunately, the one we received was an ugly but time period-appropriate green, brown and silver combo, with the body in green, the old school fabric speaker grille in brown, and both the dial panel and iPod dock in silver. We would have strongly preferred either the superior black and silver version, or the standard white, gray, and silver combination that matches most of the iPods released before late 2005; either alternative would be less jarring to the average person’s eyes than the green one.
Each of the cabinets has the same components inside: the key features are a 4” down-firing subwoofer and 3” front-firing left and right speakers, activated by a power switch on Retro’s back right side. A minijack-styled audio input on the back permits connection of auxiliary devices, such as non-iPod music players and non-docking iPods, and there’s a silver iPod dock on each unit’s top. Unlike the docks on Emerson’s iTone and mStation’s Orb, Retro’s is not accompanied by hard plastic dock adapters. Instead, it’s made large enough for all iPods, with a space for one of several foam sticker spacers in the back, and an oversized space in the front. That’s to accommodate one of Speck’s included rubber iPod cases - a cabinet color-matched SkinTight, which in the fifth-generation iPod version (iLounge rating: A-) protects most of the iPod, using a bottom-opening flap to expose its Dock Connector port for mounting on the Retro. By contrast, the iPod nano version (iLounge rating: C) has less protective material and doesn’t need the extra space on Retro’s dock. Both cases include clear hard plastic screen protectors, and are otherwise just as good as Speck’s earlier offerings. If you’re using an older iPod, Speck suggests that you buy a compatible case for $20.
We weren’t impressed with Speck’s attention to power details for the unit: there were two annoyances that interfered with our standardized testing to an unusual extent. First, and most unusually, though it would have been exceedingly easy to blend the unit’s power switch with the front volume dial - something we’ve seen on numerous other speaker designs in the past - Speck has separated these two features, forcing you to turn the unit on with the back switch. We’ve seen this in some laser printers, but very few modern iPod speakers. Additionally, Retro has an unusual power cable design: the actual power block is in the center of the cable, located inconveniently if you hope to mount Retro five or more feet off the ground. If you do, the block hangs in the air, putting pressure on the unit’s AC power port.
Our single biggest issue with SpeckTone Retro was an omission - a remote control - a feature we’ve seen and strongly prefer to find in $150-and-up speaker systems. Though we fully acknowledge that Speck might have wanted to “keep it real” with Retro by leaving out all sorts of modern features, we’re not willing to ignore the utility of this particular item, or its comparative appropriateness given the unit’s price. As we’ve said in other speaker reviews, it’s pointless for a company to boast about a system’s audio horsepower if users can’t safely turn the volume up that high, and Retro presents this exact problem: unless you plug your ears as you’re turning the front volume knob, you can’t push it to its top level without risking hearing loss. A remote control could have solved this quite easily. We also noted, with some disappointment, that the Retro doesn’t include any sort of radio - a feature that would have been a gimme given the throwback cabinet design, and less importantly doesn’t have the PC and Mac synchronization ports of systems such as the Orb. Speck seemed to try and keep its electronics simple - so simple that the unit won’t even charge your iPod unless the rear power switch is on, which is somewhat unusual by iPod speaker standards.
As far as sound quality is concerned, SpeckTone Retro is a couple of steps above okay, but not great. One of the first issues we noticed was only semi-surprising: the left and right speakers were reversed, playing backwards the left and right audio cues from one of our standard test tracks (Edwyn Collins’ A Girl Like You). It’s a common mistake for novice speaker makers, but one that unfortunately screws up appropriate spatialization, and is only acceptable if you’re setting your standards low.
Similarly, though Speck has clearly aimed for the increasingly ubiquitous “warm, rich sound” signature of higher-end speakers from companies such as Bose, a quick comparison with the mStation Orb and JBL’s sub-$100 Creature IIs made it impossible for us to ignore distortion in Retro’s bass - it’s evident as a flat thud in virtually every beat of a song with thump, and unlike the bass- and treble-adjustable Orb, was impossible to remove at normal listening levels since Speck hasn’t included any sort of audio controls other than a volume knob. If you’re listening to music without deep beats, or just aren’t concerned about the flatness of bass response, you might well like the SpeckTone’s sound - it otherwise sounds quite nice - but for our typical test music, we found this grating. We preferred the sound from mStation’s Orb, but not by much; our top-rated speaker options outperformed both systems by a substantial amount.
Overall, SpeckTone Retro is a thoroughly nichey speaker system - a throwback cabinet design with certain design oddities and omissions, and a couple of fairly serious audio issues that preclude us from giving it our standard level of recommendation. If your audio, visual, and interface expectations date back to an earlier era, and you’re not looking for “extras” such as remote control functionality or sound balance control, it may be worth checking out, but there are many other iPod speakers we’d pick first.